Controlling the media

As the Law Commission says, its recent work on media regulation was not prompted by alarm about bad press behaviour, unlike the disgraceful and law-breaking antics from certain quarters of the media in Britain.

Nevertheless, the commission has come up with changes, proposing a single, ''independent'' watchdog for print, broadcasting and online news. Commission president Sir Grant Hammond said the report was prompted by the gaps and disparities in the legal and ethical standards and accountabilities applied to news and current affairs.

There was a lack of accountability for new media and, while broadcast news was subject to statutory standards, content accessed ''on demand'' or on an app was not subject to similar scrutiny.

At least, the commission, presenting to Parliament last week, has modified earlier suggestions of a compulsory statutory body controlling media. A free media is absolutely essential for a free society and for individual rights. Despite all its ethical, commercial and other weaknesses, media must be truly independent. Government, authorities and establishment in its various forms must be subject to autonomous scrutiny. Citizens must have conduits for a wide range of views and complaints.

Even the history of New Zealand, a comparatively ''free'' country, shows how the media can be complaisant, cowed or, like everyone else, subject to severe restrictions on freedom of speech, as occurred during the 1951 waterfront dispute. Statutory control of the media and, therefore, potential power over what can or cannot be printed, broadcast or otherwise disseminated is fundamentally dangerous.

The commission's ''one-stop shop'' would not be compulsory. But, in actuality, such are the carrots proposed that mainstream media would have little choice but to join. They would be eligible for legal exemptions and privileges at present available, like the partial exemption from the Privacy Act. The News Media Standards Authority would apply to broadcasting news content and news bloggers could opt in.

Newspapers at present are covered by the Press Council, a voluntary body that has operated effectively, and newspaper companies have agreed to extend its jurisdiction to websites. There would seem no pressing need to change a system that works well.

Broadcasters are overseen by the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA), set up by statute.

But one of the issues if news content switched is confusion for the public. Is the programme they wish to complain about news or part news? Should they complain to the proposed authority or the BSA? Could not the BSA's power be extended to broadcasters' other activities? Additionally, the BSA would be the logical organisation, even if under a different name, to have jurisdiction over purely web-based media.

The proposals are to be considered by Justice Minister Judith Collins, whose comments, like some from the commission, are revealing. The laws governing media regulations, freedoms and protections do, indeed, ''pre-date the digital era''.

And, yes, ''nowadays, virtually anyone with a computer and an internet connection can publish and spread news and opinion'', as Ms Collins said. But, crucially, all those who are irresponsible, those who do not care about the commercial risks to their business through loss of reputation, are the very people who will not join the new ''watchdog''.

The whole mechanism is set up for the responsible, and not for those where most of the concern lies.

Further, issues that have arisen can often be covered by current law, notably defamation and contempt of court.

It is frustrating for traditional media doing their best to follow accepted guidelines and rules and laws to find them flagrantly breached, especially web-based and electronic media, without consequence. If action was taken - through the BSA, the Press Council or even the courts - there would be little cause to introduce new regulatory measures.

The commission was sensible to go some way to propose a model closer to the Press Council than the BSA. But the newspaper industry model of self-regulation is not broken and, thus, should not need changing. And after all, the ultimate judgement of any news organisation - public and commercial support - will always come back to basic principles and the relationship of trust between the publisher and reader, the broadcaster and viewer.


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